The Boiler Room; Wonder Boys; Not One Less

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:52

    Boiler Room Directed by Ben Younger Hiphop seems to have brought out the ethnicity in everyone. Especially?strangely enough?white boys. The first half of the new film Boiler Room is charged by the candor of ethnic expression. Its white Jewish narrator Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi) talks frankly about his ambition and greed, using the black rapper the Notorious B.I.G. as authority and role model. Biggie's rhyme about young black men's limited career options, "crack rock or hook shot," is adapted by Seth, the newest member in a corps of whiteboy stockbrokers. It seems young whites like Boiler Room's writer-director 26-year-old Ben Younger needed the prodding of black rappers' ethnic swagger to legitimize the shameless expression of venality. And though we all know that the circumstances behind black braggadocio and white arrogance stem from different social influences and opportunities, the spectacle of unbridled arrogance?and its suggested connection to social dissent?juices anticipation. Younger might be a hiphop head but he needs more of a hiphop heart. Uncommitted to the social challenge suggested by white-to-black cultural identification, Younger pledges fundamental allegiance to cutthroat, balls-to-the-wall capitalism. That he has no moral response to the inequity implied in even the most venal hiphop is apparent from the affair Seth strikes up with Abby (Nia Long), the brokerage's black $80K secretary. This is little more than an infatuation; their exchanges limited to sex and the sketch Younger provides of Abby's pathetic home life caring for her invalid mother. (Long might be New Line's black Gwyneth, but she gets little screen time here.) Only Seth's street style has been influenced by hiphop; awareness of rap lingo and attitude hasn't changed his selfish, privileged, insulated response to the world. He has no political consciousness. Younger attempts to square that with a half-cynical dramatic tone, representing the New Century's immorality.

    This is kid-think?the proven commercial version of moral veracity. It's a slick justification of youthful fantasies about entering the adult world. Even before "acting as-if" by dressing in expensive suits, Seth had quit college to run a profitable, illegal gambling den out his apartment. Brokering his own innocence for small-scale, presumably manageable corruption Seth plays out a fantasy hiphop's drug tales have frequently exploited (Ice-T's Rhyme Pays, Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," Prince Paul's A Prince Among Thieves?even Public Enemy's more astute, non-drug saga "Air Hoodlum"). But instead of reflecting a worldview, Younger demonstrates movie-struck naivete. The ethical stakes in Boiler Room are as synthetic as Hollywood formula. Younger has modeled the fast-paced, foxhole miasma of stock trading after David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross but he particularly references Oliver Stone's 1987 Wall Street (Seth and his white-collar comrades lounge in one's large, chilly furnished house watching?and Vin Diesel reciting?a big-screen video of Michael Douglas'/Gordon Gekko's shamelessness). It wasn't just gullible youth who took Wall Street seriously; the culture at large accepted its cautionary tale as instruction. Gekko's "Greed Is Good" speech was celebrated rather than critiqued?one of the most shocking lunacies of the 20th century, utter proof of the late moviegoing public's lack of sophistication.

    Wall Street's success also made an unfortunate argument that pop culture has a corruptible influence. But this was also part of Oliver Stone's peculiar pop legacy; like Seth, unscrupulous talent and conflicted ambition have determined his cultural fate. In a sense Stone was the most influential movie figure of the 80s, for the way his expose movies (Wall Street and his script for De Palma's Scarface) captivated the hiphop generation's imagination about how the world worked. Unable to identify with the conventional routes of American success, they misconstrued Stone's muckraking to feed their own fantasies. Their hunger for power heedlessly accepted Stone's suggestion that all power was corrupt. This potent social myth, combining Americanism with gangsterism and youthful naivete, shows in Scarface's connection to Hype Williams' Belly as well as Wall Street's connection to Boiler Room. When Seth asserts his cojones by protesting, "Hey, I ran a casino!" Younger is obviously cueing Scorsese and his gangsta oeuvre, but today's success mythology has gone beyond that (The Sopranos, with its comic Goodfellas nostalgia, only appeals to middle-aged folks).

    Younger's hiphop-Hollywood sensibility, though flashy, seems unreliable after last year's Office Space?a neglected but classic demonstration of the change in America's moral and professional spirit. Mike Judge, the working-class satirist, uncannily recognized the impetus white-collar workers got from gangsta rap. (Somewhere James Thurber, walkman in his ear, is nodding.) Judge's surprising juxtaposition of urban and suburban frustration proved an understanding of hiphop that was deeper than Younger's fashionable quasi-appropriation. The difference between rap and 9-to-5 drudgery seemed a perfect comic expression of working-stiff anxiety?a liberation fantasy rooted in the fear of American poverty and deprivation. But Younger is fascinated by the late-20th century phenomenon of quick success and baby-faced millionaires stuck in moral infancy. He never questions the privilege Seth takes for granted. He uses hiphop unironically?and, somehow, casting Ben Affleck as the brokerage's prime motivator/sleazebag makes the shallow cynicism of these wannabe Gekkos credible as a truly contemporary, validated behavior. But what should be Boiler Room's critique (or its satire) of white privilege just fritters away, a pale version of Stone's disillusionment. The way Younger fancily approximates a 360-degree camera move to show Seth and his father's big meeting near City Hall indicates Michael Mann's pretense rather than Stone's acuity. (Crosscutting from Seth to Taylor Nichols as a scared yuppie investor is also a po-faced, badly conceived indie attempt at kineticism.)

    Ribisi plays Seth with the deceptive open-mouthed puppyness of vengeful nerds but the more interesting broker is Nicky Katt's Greg, the mentor who becomes Seth's rival in the trading room and Abby's bed. A dark-haired, dark-eyed shark, Greg provokes the film's basic cultural analogy when he regards the boiler room's white, Jewish and Italian mix and speaks on the different ethnic means of capitalist success, decrying his competitors as "nigger rich." It doesn't sound like hiphop's convivial pronunciation of the noun; it's pure degradation stated as evocative capitalist fact. And when Greg defends himself ("Because I'm a Jew and I have the mind of a champion"), Younger rises to the level of aggressive confrontation he initially proposes?seemingly a tougher and more fearless take than when attending to Seth's melancholy. These blunt terms are worthy of hiphop; they evince awareness of racism that most movies disingenuously ignore or romanticize. Only in these brief moments does Boiler Room heat up the tension endemic to capitalist aggression, implying that it sustains ethnic rivalry.

    The title Boiler Room describes a workplace yet it's meant to define dangerous emotional territory?America's inhumane engine. But that would require Younger to examine casual white infatuation with black expressions of discontent, to reconsider the networks of power from black ghettoes to Wall Street to Long Island enclaves. He'd have to risk the self-examination and ethnic humility that Robert Downey Jr. arrived at in the memorable broker scenes of his witty, soul-searching documentary The Last Party. Downey caught the authentic class/ethnic tone of Wall Street louts hanging out in Battery Park without a hiphop soundtrack's flattering, excitable distraction.

    The Beach Directed by Danny Boyle Still, Boiler Room is a far more intriguing and honest movie than its competition?Leonardo DiCaprio's The Beach. Director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge?both frauds?express such jejune exasperation with Western capitalism, they surely could use a few hiphop tunes to catch a clue. Despite hiphop's global effect, the international set of wastrels encountered on the halcyon beach have little attachment to the outside world besides the creature comforts they put on a shopping list. Leo's All-American naif exists in a narcissistic bubble that, apparently, not even Will Smith hits have pierced. A more offensive concept than Younger's stockjocks, this new Leo attempts to make glamour out of clueless disaffection. He may not be confused by cross-cultural, trans-ethnic pop attitudes as in Boiler Room (Leo just conveniently nods to Third World dope smuggling), but his simplified sense of his place in the world embarrasses the solipsism that the worldwide success of hiphop once seemed to remedy. Just because filmmakers uses terms like "cipher" (in Leo's narration) doesn't mean their characters are more than ciphers. In The Beach Boyle and Hodge (working from a novel by Alex Garland) seem intent on not defining anything, especially psychology or class resentment. The quasi-Lord of the Flies experiment with social structure gets lost in what looks like travel-brochure homogeneity of youthful affluence. The closest thing to a moral touchstone is the subliminal influence of other movies?particularly Apocalypse Now (which Boyle misreads worse than American kids interpreted Oliver Stone). The opening scenes of Leo in Bangkok are like Wong Kar-Wai without depth?modernist dislocation is put on display but alienation never penetrated. Leo's stardom seems sufficient unto itself; unlike Seth, he harkens back to nothing, which is the same exploitation of youthful vanity that Boyle almost got away with in Trainspotting (#8 on the list of worst 90s films) and that David Fincher's Fight Club disguised with special effects and fake pugilistics.

    As in Boiler Room, Generation X's psychological panic is raised, then dropped. Generation know-nothing is what's allegorized in The Beach, but this movie, in which Leo seeks the one place on Earth with "no ideology," isn't even as consistent an analysis as Stephan Elliott's end-of-civilization comedy Welcome to Woop Woop. The Beach's young protagonists lament the impossibility of finding paradise. In trying to make that foolish search a meaningful thrill-ride, Boyle and DiCaprio?both out of touch with the realities hiphop preserve?flub the present-day tensions that keep Boiler Room's instant-wealth drama wound up. Completing the ethnic and cultural failure that Boiler Room almost makes, The Beach's allegory glamorizes hijinks of (mostly) white folks who don't even recognize their own fascism and tyranny.

    Clipped Oldies But Goodies. Fly as it feels to watch Younger play his Boiler Room fantasy against a hiphop backdrop, his revival of some prime De La Soul cuts is a mixed blessing. While recalling hiphop's brief, early 90s jubilation, Younger's decision to bypass gangsta rap for De La Soul's more idiosyncratic conundrums is a more facile than felicitous association. He might be trying to suggest the particular elitist taste of boiler room stockjocks whom he shows encroaching on Manhattan watering holes to defy and gloat at the more privileged, but the great De La Soul seems rather tony for these wannabes (the avaricious and crudely clannish Wu-Tang Clan would seem a better match). Maybe Younger's hiphop fascination isn't empathic enough?certainly not if it glibly emphasizes machismo and aggression. As a De La Soul rapper once warned, "Fuck being hard/Posdnous is complicated!"